Re-Defection to North Korea: Exaggeration or the Beginning of a Trend?

HRNK Experts look at the context behind an increasing trend of "re-defection" to North Korea
January 24th, 2013
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By Greg Scarlatoiu, Jana Johnson and Miran Song

Reports of North Korean re-defectors have recently gained international attention. Along with a statement by former National Assemblywoman Park Sun-young that now one hundred defectors have returned to the North, these reports of re-defection have drawn attention to the struggles of North Koreans who resettle in the South.

While defectors face a number of challenges in the South, there is no clear indication that these challenges have caused an increased number of recent re-defections. In response to Ms. Park Sun-young’s statement, the South Korean government officially stated that it could not give the exact number of re-defectors but gave assurances that the number is much lower than Park’s estimate and may be less than ten cases.The South Korean government cites the difficulty of tracking re-defectors as the cause for not knowing the exact number.

Only a handful of re-defection cases have been reported. Using those reports, we have outlined the key causes of re-defection and the information we have about the number of re-defectors.

The Number of Defectors

There have been widely varying reports of the number of re-defectors. Reports range from under ten to two hundred. South Korea’s Minister of Unification, Jeong Dong-young, said at a 2012 press conference in Seoul: “There are a few cases of re-defection. Last year, 70 percent of defectors who traveled abroad visited China, and about forty of them are staying there now for a long time.”

Because re-defectors are unlikely to report their desire to re-defect to the South Korean government, it is difficult to track their actions. They may often travel back to North Korea through unconventional means similar to those they used to originally defect. They may also contact North Korean agents in China in order to enter Pyongyang.

Re-defection: Not a New Experience

It might be tempting to see North Korean re-defectors as a new group, but redefection is not a novel idea. During the Cold War, there were similar cases of redefection, cases that have similar themes to the ones we have seen in North Korean re-defectors’ stories.

During the Cold War, there may have been some cases of espionage-driven re-defection, but there was also a great effort on the part of the Soviet Union and some of its satellite governments to encourage defectors to come home. This effort included the establishment of an organization—supposedly established by repentant re-defectors themselves—and promises of a warm welcome back home. However, it is also possible that defectors may also have been driven by depression, difficulty of adjustment, and homesickness to return home.

Causes of Re-defection:

Family

Yoo Tae-joon’s mother

Many defectors send money they earn in South Korea to their families in the North, and some re-defectors may have returned to the North in order to be with their families or bring them out of North Korea.

Yoo Tae-joon is one such case. He redefected in 2000 in order to find his family. However, upon returning to North Korea, he found that his family had been killed as a result of his initial defection. He was arrested by the North Korean police and then re-escaped in 2001. He said, “The North Korean government treated me well for a while before the press conference, by giving me more food, but they tortured me again after I met with the press.”

North Korea’s Offering of Bribes and Other Deals

North Korean defectors in South Korea suggest that the North Korean State Security Department (Bo-wi-bu) has been attempting to lure North Korean defectors since 2011 in order to make them return to North Korea.

It is said that North Korea has instituted a policy that if defectors turn themselves in, they will be welcome back into the state and society of North Korea. According to North Korean defectors, they can be forgiven if they give the party about 60,000,000 South Korean won (about USD 50,000). If they don’t have money, they can bring “crucial information” about South Korea. Han Chang-gwon, the president of the North Korean Defectors Groups’ Coalition, said, “The North Korean government has activities of defectors at its fingertips. The lists of defectors are already in the North Korean government’s hands.

Economic Reasons

The first known case of redefection is the case of Kim Nam-soo, who originally defected from North Korea in January 1997. He experienced business failure and poverty in South Korea and returned to North Korean through China in July 2000. He went to the North Korean Embassy in China with 70,000,000 South Korean won and requested permission to return to North Korea. North Korean radio broadcasting hyped up the redefection, saying, “Our Comrade is coming in with party membership fees.” When he got back to North Korea, he was warmly received and was allowed to operate a public bathhouse and a barbershop with the money he had earned. However, he found the regime to be too oppressive and re-escaped in 2003.

Kim Nam-soo and Choi Seung-chan

In another economically-driven case, Choi Seung-chan defected to the South and worked at Nonghyup Bank from May 1997 to January 2004 before returning to North Korea with the fifty thousand dollars he had earned. According to people in Kaesung, he gave thirty thousand dollars to the North Korean government and gave eight thousand dollars to his acquaintances. Kim Jong-il ordered government officials to treat Mr. Choi well rather and not send him to prison.

Blackmail

In other cases, North Korea may use defectors’ families to blackmail them into returning. This may have been the case with Park Jung-sook. According to a few fellow defectors, she was scammed and had a hard time making a living in South Korea, but the reason for her defection was that she heard of the relocation of her son and daughter in law to a remote area in North Korea. South Korea’s Ministry of Unification suggests that Park could have been blackmailed by the North Korean government with a threat to her son’s safety.

Some suspect she will try to defect again, which is why Pyongyang is treating her so well. Her re-defection would certainly deal a heavy blow to Kim Jong-un’s official propaganda.

Many also believe that Kim Kwang-hyuk and his wife Ko Jong-nam, who recently redefected, were blackmailed by the North Korean State Security Department in September.A party executive of Musan district said, “Who would dare come back to North Korea by himself? It’s a performance of Bo-wi-bu of Musan district. They will continue to arrest defectors.”

North Korea has recently introduced a mobile phone tracking system throughout the major border cities and is tapping telephone calls. This system could be used to identify and track defectors in order to blackmail them into returning to North Korea. Also, “escape brokers” who make a lot of calls to acquaintances in North Korea may be a significant target.

Espionage

Won Jung-hwa

Mr. Lee from Hoeryong in North Hamkyung province came over to South Korea through China in 2008. He was educated in South Korea’s Hanawon, but he suddenly disappeared in 2009. Han Chang-gwon, the President of the North Korean Defectors Groups’ Coalition, said, “Mr.Lee videotaped the inside of Hanawon and disappeared with the DVD.” Later, some defectors from Hoeryong said they had seen him in North Korea. They said his father was the manager of the Hoeryong police substation and did not suffer any punishment after his son defected. “Seen from his whereabouts, he seems to be a spy,” president Han said.

Another secret agent disguised himself as a defector in South Korea for more than a year. After entering South Korea, it was reported that he worked as a spy, collecting the information of Hanawon and Daesung Kongsa, a newspaper run by North Korean defectors. He obtained a passport and left for North Korea in 2004 and submitted a written report of information obtained in South Korea to the North Korean head of border guard of Bo-wi-bu.There have also been other spies who were captured before they were able to return to the North. A female spy, Won Jung-hwa, was arrested in August 2008. North Korean special agents Kim Myung-ho and Dong Myung-Kwan, who tried to assassinate Hwang Jang-yop, the former secretary of the North Korean Workers Party, were also arrested.

Religious Reasons

It also seems that some individuals, such as Jo Boong-il, have re-defected in order to preach religion in North Korea. Jo Boong-il was reported in 2002 as having re-defected to the North in order to preach the gospel there. He stated, “My prayer is that I be sent to a political prison camp without being executed so that I can preach the gospel to the inmates there.”

An alleged underground church in North Korea

Re-defection: Concluding Remarks

News reports on re-defections have been largely based on rumors surfacing from the defector community in South Korea and on North Korean news reports. Needless to say, there is a great lack of reliable information regarding re-defectors. What we do know is that defectors face a number of challenges in South Korea—economic, separation from family, and cultural—that make life difficult for them there.

Some may choose to re-defect due to these difficulties, but it seems to be largely believed that the majority of re-defector cases are influenced to some degree by bribes or blackmail by the North Korean regime.

From the reported cases of re-defection, it is evident that it is not a new issue. There have been rumors of re-defection for years, and it is difficult to make the assertion that there is any trend towards greater numbers of re-defections at this time. Nevertheless, there has been no detailed study dedicated exclusively to the issue of re-defection. Through interviews with North Korean defectors and relevant South Korean government officials, NGOs and other experts, human rights organizations could gain a more detailed understanding of the causes of re-defection. Such information could be conducive to understanding not only the hardest challenges facing former North Koreans who have resettled in South Korea, but also maneuvering by North Korean intelligence and public security agencies to score points on the propaganda front.

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This article originally appeared at the HRNK blog on January 17, 2013

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About the Author

Chad O'Carroll

Chad O'Carroll founded NK News in 2010. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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